Session Forty-Five

EXCERPT FROM A LETTER TO DURGA SYN FROM SISTER MAUDE KHLESL

(PART 4 OF 4)

[CONTINUED FROM PREVIOUS SESSION SUMMARY]

The following day, as we slept, there were three assaults, including one in which one of the vozhd was driven off by hot sand poured from the battlements. George was to tell us later that they had merely been tests of the castle’s defensive strength.

We awoke to the sounds of more battle, and were immediately needed to help shore up the defences on the walls. I was able to drive the attackers from one stretch of the battlements with an application of fear-based Mortis, but the attack claimed the lives of 20 of the defenders, though the enemy casualties were far greater.

Following the battle, staring around at the mangled corpses, defender and enemy alike, I was almost overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering that had been unleashed. And not just the physical agony of the wounded and dying, but the lingering suffering that I knew would result from the deprivation and hardship of families forever bereft of their husbands and fathers. But those sorts of thoughts had to be put aside. I hardened my heart and turned my thoughts solely to how to make myself effective.

Throughout the night, Koban harassed us with his Koldunic spirit powers, causing many of the defenders’ armour and weapons to warp and collapse into scrap. Perhaps more crucially, the ballista on the tower – one of our few weapons capable of hurting the vozhd – was similarly ruined.

A plan was then conceived to call a temporary truce so that we could parlay with Koban. The hope was that he would reveal his motives for besieging Toth, and that we could then find a way to convince him to call off the attack. I had reservations about whether he would honour such a truce if we left the safety of the castle walls, but Iulia and Veceslav seemed confident that he wouldn’t betray us in that way. Even amidst all the horror and mayhem, I was struck by the insanity of the Tzimisce code of honour, in which it was perfectly acceptable to arbitrarily brutalise and murder innocent people, but “dishonourable” to attack the leaders of an enemy force during a truce.

By signalling our intent with white flags, a group of us were permitted to approach the enemy encampment unmolested. From there we were escorted by Koban’s Huntmaster, Stanok (who Bernhard had almost killed previously), into the voivode’s tent of human flesh.

Koban epitomises the pinnacle of evil of which our kind are capable, and this was reflected in his form: seven feet of flesh-crafted horror; all bony ridges and multiple orifices doubling as eyes and mouths. Also present were his three other childe, Varg, Jimuz and Timur, his Warmaster, along with an assortment of monstrous war ghouls, including his vozhd throne crafted from still-living beasts of burden.

Standing as I was in the midst of hell-on-earth among creatures utterly antithetical to every belief I hold dear, I decided – wisely, I think – to say very little. In the discussion that followed, I simply sought occasional clarification. And so it was from Koban himself that the final pieces of the puzzle were put in place, and the whole of the story revealed.

Fifty years ago, Zubor, childe of Gesu, had attempted to set up an Obertus monastery in Koban’s lands. Unsurprisingly, Koban wasn’t very receptive to the Christian message of love and redemption. Zubor was forced to flee, and his flight took him through Toth. There Bodor briefly gave him hospitality and shelter, before Koban’s forces appeared in pursuit and Zubor had to flee once more. However, before he left, Zubor gave his host a “gift” in return for his hospitality: he Embraced Bodor without his consent.

This left Bodor ignorant of the necessities of the vampiric condition, and some unfortunate servants subsequently met their ends as a result of his frenzies. He informed his family of his curse, who rallied around him for the most part – all save the oldest sister, Remenyke, who finally fled Toth altogether when Bodor eventually offered the Embrace to the twins, Farkas and Erzebet.

After a couple of years, Bodor decided to fake his own death, leaving Devald to rule as the new Boyar, while he withdrew into an unlife devoted to uncovering the secrets of his vampiric existence. To further this effort, Killian travelled west to see if he could discover more about vampirism, and returned with another vampire, a Tremere called Lempi. She promised to tutor Bodor on the vampiric condition and on Cainite society, but instead attempted to take his place as ruler of Toth by instructing a blood bound Killian to murder his own father – a plan which backfired spectacularly when Bodor instead overpowered and imprisoned them both. Over the years, Lempi became the canvas on which he practiced his flesh-crafting; she currently served as his gruesome writing desk.

Meanwhile, Farkas, after his Embrace, also travelled west and fell in with the Obertus monks at the monastery in Zara where he was eventually to meet his end at the hands of the Crusaders. While there, Farkas made copies of many of the monastery’s texts and sent them back to his father. It was from these, and clearly aided by a natural aptitude, that Bodor was over the years able to achieve an astonishing level of mastery of both Auspex and Vicissitude without the benefit of any direct instruction.

As for Bodor’s sire, Zubor, he had been caught by Koban’s forces soon after Bodor’s Embrace, and was returned to Koban to face a grim fate. However, Zubor’s dying words were a curse on Koban, in which he declared that his blood would destroy him. Ever since, Koban had been obsessed with the nature of the curse – despite any evidence of its actual efficacy – interpreting it to mean that Zubor’s offspring would one day carry out their sire’s revenge. Regrettably, Bodor’s oldest daughter, Remenyke, recently fell into Koban’s clutches, and it was from her that he learned the tale of her father, Bodor, and that Zubor had made him his childe.

So, that was the whole tale in all its horrific, sordid, absurd detail. This Zubor had cursed Koban with his dying breath – a curse that was almost certainly nothing but empty words – and Koban, in his insanity, had believed it to have actual power. Naturally I then tried to point this out to him, but was shushed by Myca. I acquiesced, thinking I was somehow making matters worse. However, I was to learn later that Myca had identified Koban’s weakness – an astonishing gullibility on matters of the occult – and had seen an opportunity to take advantage of it himself.

So, Durga my friend, there I stood in the company of the utterly evil and insane, my mission originally to forestall the indiscriminate and ill-aimed vengeance of the hateful Bodor Toth, but now to defend his people from the depredations of the voivode, Koban, who was attacking for no good reason whatsoever … and despite the pointlessness and lunacy of every aspect of Koban’s endeavour, thinking I was powerless to convince him to change his mind. As the conversation turned to crazed pleasantries and offers of virgins’ blood for refreshment, I reflected on the fact that if I had the means to end Koban right then, even if it meant breaking the truce, even if it meant ruining the reputations of my coterie mates in Cainite society, even if it meant the end of my own unlife, it would be a price well worth paying. For even if I am to survive for centuries, I doubt I can achieve enough lasting good to offset the evil that Koban will inflict in a fraction of that time.

As we left Koban’s tent to make our way back to the castle, Erzebet suddenly grew distressed. Forty yards away sat one of the vozhd in its enclosure. Melded into its midsection was Erzebet’s oldest sister. It seemed that Remenyke had finally come home.

Back at the castle, the preparations for the final siege began. After considerable debate, Devald agreed to ghoul all the soldiers – with the identity stripped from the vitae, and with Iulia able to Dominate the soldiers into believing that they were drinking a “green, minty strength potion”, there was very little reason not to.

Throughout the night Koban continued to harass us with his Koldunism. A Kupala demon, similar to the ones we faced with the Malkavian cultists all those years ago, appeared in the compound, but it proved vulnerable to my Mortis and an uncharacteristically skilled display of swordsmanship by Veceslav.

Spirits also assailed the defenders psychically, saturating them with hysteria, despair and violent anger. It was all we could do just to keep the people from killing themselves or each other. Fortunately, Bodor was able to travel to the spirits’ realm with his Auspex power of astral projection and drive many away, but the effort depleted him sorely, and in the end the damage to morale had been done. I attempted to retaliate by sending the illusion of a great spirit eagle over the enemy encampment imploring them to throw down their weapons during any upcoming fighting, promising them a mercy that they wouldn’t receive if they returned to Koban in failure. As far as I could tell, it was completely ineffective.

There were no more assaults that night.

We awoke the following dusk to learn of further attacks during the day that had claimed more casualties on both sides. Alas, Lazlo was among them. I can’t claim to have been overly fond of the vain, smug hedonist, but his death was still something of a shock. He has served our coterie from the very beginning and, for all his shortcomings, was capable and trustworthy.

Also among the casualties, thankfully, was one of the vozhd, destroyed by the last reserves of hot sand. However, without more sand we realised that we had nothing in our arsenal reliably capable of bringing down the other vozhd. George suggested we hastily dig a spike-lined pit just behind the gate for when the vozhd inevitably smashed its way through. With a concerted effort, this was achieved just in time for the final assault.

As Koban’s forces gathered just out of arrow range, Devald gave a speech to the faltering, fearful defenders, a speech that was so rousing, so inspirational, that some of the non-combatants – women, the very old, and some barely out of childhood – picked up spears to join the ranks of the soldiers. In fact, I had subtly illuminated Devald in a “divine” light, and enhanced the atmosphere with auditory illusions that mimicked cheering. I was disquieted to see women and children taking up arms as a result, but reminded myself that the fight had to be won or all would perish.

It was at this critical moment that Myca decided to save his own skin rather than risk fighting in the battle. He left us a note saying he was going to attempt something with Koban. I quickly asked Bodor to scry Myca with his Auspex, and so was able to learn what was said between him and the insane voivode, and learn why Myca had shushed me in our earlier parlay under the truce.

With a silver tongue, Myca managed to convince Koban that Zubor’s curse would actually somehow destroy Koban from within, not through Zubor’s childe, and that only the Obertus could help him be rid of it. His reasoning and his assertions were utterly nonsensical and fatuous, his motives laughably transparent, and yet Koban believed him! It beggared belief that such a powerful Prince – especially a master of the occult – could be so utterly susceptible to such blatant prevarication. Durga, my friend, I have no doubt that you would find a way to make use of such a weakness but, alas, that kind of manipulation does not come easily to me. In any case, Koban told Myca that he intended to press the attack anyway, to which Myca responded with indifference – callous indeed, but I must concede there was probably nothing he could say to change Koban’s mind.

Shortly after this, the main assault began. The slaughter that followed dwarfed even what had occurred over the previous two days. The bodies piled up beneath the walls as the attackers swarmed up ladders, threatening to overwhelm the battlements. As you know, Durga my friend, under normal circumstances I am blessed – though it is sometimes a curse – with near perfect recall. However, my memory of the battle is curiously fragmented, as though remembering a nightmare.

Some of those fragments remain at the forefront of my memories, ghastly legacies of the battle’s horror: Veceslav, in Zulo shape, being beaten down by Jimuz, but then frenzying and tearing the Cuman’s head and spine from his body; Bodor, also in Zulo shape, ripping out Varg’s throat and hurling him from the battlements; Iulia and Agmundr facing off against more summoned Kupala demons; me swinging a man like a living club to knock invaders from the walls; Bernhard facing off against the Warmaster, Timur, who proves unbelievably resilient to his attacks, even though I am freezing his movements with my Mortis powers; Timur eventually being driven off the walls with Bernhard in pursuit; the last vozhd breaking through the gate and falling into the pit; the defenders mobbing it; Erzebet being all but eviscerated by one swipe of its enormous talons before Veceslav finally ends it with a desperate, frenzied attack. Butchery. Carnage. Endless death.

And then it was over. Koban was retreating with what remained of his forces. The few surviving Cumans inside the walls had thrown down their weapons and surrendered. The dead and dying lay in heaps. Contorted bodies. Ragged, torn flesh. Staring, sightless eyes. Every surface painted red with the slick of blood. Corpses twitching, reluctant to acknowledge that they’re dead. Screams. Moans. Weeping. All this I ignored. Instead I stared down at just one dead woman at my feet, quite unable to move or look away.

Her name had been Marta. I had been briefly introduced to her before the siege. She was an awkward woman. Most of the left side of her face was covered in a thick spongy birthmark, which most of the villagers believed to be some kind of curse or divine punishment or sign of innate wickedness. As a result, despite Angyalka’s best efforts, she was a spinster and a pariah. As is often the case with such victims of God’s capricious cruelty, she was meek and biddable and desperately eager to please.

And so, when Devald gave his impassioned speech, urging the defenders to harden their resolve and fight for their homes, a speech which I enhanced with cheap trickery in order to stir the defenders to fervour, Marta, desperate for approval, snatched up a spear, despite having little strength and even less skill, and stood with the defenders. I saw her struck down by one of the last remaining szlachta in the courtyard. While it fought one of the militiamen, Marta made a single inept thrust at the monster’s side, which glanced off its bony carapace, before it disembowelled her with a casual flick of its sword-arm.

And so, like all the dead around me, she had been slaughtered by vampires, as surely as if they had cut her down themselves. From Zubor’s dying curse to his violating Embrace of Bodor, from Bodor’s hateful and indiscriminate plans for murderous vengeance, from Koban’s insanity and sadism – from all of them sprang the death and suffering, which had soaked our endeavours from the moment we began this farce. And the one vampire amongst it all with an altruistic bent, the one trying to ameliorate the harm of her brethren? Even she did harm, tricking innocents into throwing themselves into harm’s way, toying with their emotions in the pursuit of her oh-so-noble goals, allowing their lives to be sacrificed so cheaply, for the mere cost of a single swing of an enemy blade. Hundreds dead, endless suffering, unremitting horror, unrelenting despair – all at our hands, and with nothing – nothing! – worthwhile to offset any of it.

Now, Durga, I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right: there should be no place in my heart for this kind of self-indulgent self-pity. I may even have an inflated view of my abilities – Devald’s speech was extremely stirring in its own right, and so Marta may have taken up her spear irrespective of my tricks.

But my point remains, and it is this: we vampires are a curse on the world. For every one like you and me, there are a hundred that kill and take without compunction. We are pissing on a forest fire, you and I, and we are deluding ourselves if we think our kind, as a whole, will ever abandon self-interest and savagery for compassion and reason. It’s simply not in our nature.

So, where do these thoughts lead me? Well, nowhere they haven’t wandered before. But if there’s one thing of which I’m now sure, it is this: if it were within my means to end the unlives of all vampires everywhere – myself; you, my friend; the gracious Lady Perlina; the beatific Prince Julia Antasia; the compassionate Prince Dionysus; my sire, Dietrich, whom I love for no good reason; my friend Elijah who I love with very good reason … all of them – then I would, with regret, but with no hesitation, destroy us all, and know that the world was a much, much better place because of it.

So, what does this mean for me in practical terms? Not much, particularly in the short term. I will continue my work to improve the lot of mortals. I will continue to ameliorate the harm done by the worst of our kind. But now my thoughts will be bent to a larger goal: is there a way to thin the numbers of our kind, particularly the worst of the murderous tyrannical Tzimisce here in the East? Could remorseless Christian zealots like the ones we encountered in Venice, or like the ones on the Crusade itself, somehow be made aware of the creatures of irredeemable evil that rule without challenge in Eastern Europe? Could we somehow set murderous fanatics against murderous vampires? Innocent lives would undoubtedly be lost in such a conflict, but tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold more would be saved in the years that followed, years with curtailed vampiric oppression. Do we not owe future generations the possibility of a life free from the depredations of our kind?

The final toll of the battle was devastating. The majority of the trained guardsmen and militia were dead, along with the many non-combatants who, like Marta, had taken up arms at the end. The enemy dead numbered in the hundreds. Were many of them, too, just victims of circumstance? Would most of them have eschewed the conflict if the choice had been theirs? Gortav, Bernhard’s Pecheneg mercenary leader had also fallen, along with most of his comrades. However, surprisingly, Erzebet had survived the vozhd’s attack, though her injuries had driven her into torpor. I would be in no hurry to revive her, though, even though it was within my means, without first attempting to leverage some concessions from her odious father.

As order was restored and the most grievously injured attended to, it was discovered that Killian had fled the castle just before the final attack after somehow using Lempi to Embrace him, and then destroying her. Bodor was livid and declared Killian disowned. It now seems unlikely that the Tzimisce father and now-Tremere son will ever settle their differences, but in my view Bodor only has himself to blame.

Shortly after the battle had ended, Bernhard drank his fill of blood, and then set off into the blizzard in an attempt to track and bring down Koban’s fleeing Warmaster, Timur. His plan seemed unwise to me given that both he and I were unable to defeat the villain together. However, Timur’s reserves of blood would be very low, and besides, experience had shown me that Bernhard unfailingly disregarded any of my attempts to stop him putting himself “to the hazard”. Still, I felt uneasy – more so than usual – as I watched him lope off into the squall.

The next night Bernhard still hadn’t returned, so Bodor used his Auspex to scry his location. He discovered the unthinkable: Timur had somehow turned the tables and cut Bernhard down. As Bodor watched, Timur was making his way back to his master, dragging Bernhard’s ravaged body through the snow behind him. It was unclear whether Bernhard was slain or in torpor, so I adopted my spectral form and frantically set off through the blizzard in an attempt to catch them up. I had no sensible plan for besting Timur should Bernhard still be alive, but I hoped to at least ascertain whether he had gone to Final Death.

I was too late. Timur made it to Koban’s encampment before I could catch up with him. I watched from a distance as they impaled Bernhard’s body on a long pole, and hoisted it up as a kind of perverse banner. I stared in disbelief. Alive or dead, Bernhard was now lost to us.

We built a cairn at the spot he fell. Despite the mixed feelings I had about the man, I found myself grieving. It’s hard to describe succinctly how I feel about his passing, but it is perhaps best put like this: it was like losing a brother, one that I had little respect for and even at times despised, but who was my brother nonetheless. Also, for reasons that are unclear to me, I also sincerely believed – without any real evidence – that in the end he would somehow find a way to arrest his moral decline and to finally master his Beast. Even an old rationalist like I can be allowed her moments of groundless optimism, no?

And so our mission to end the Toth family’s attacks on Zara has been successful, though that objective now seems absurd given all that has transpired … and all that has been lost. Toth’s people have been decimated while the village itself was razed by Koban’s retreating forces. The settlement may never recover. Already many of the villagers are talking about leaving when the weather clears; since Koban may well return in the future, this is an entirely sensible course of action that should be encouraged, even if it means the end of Toth in the long run.

In return for me reviving Erzebet, Bodor has agreed to maintain correspondence with myself, Iulia and Veceslav, and to put his powers of Auspex at our disposal on a regular basis. In fact, he, Vykos and Veceslav seem to have become quite close in the weeks after the siege, spending much of their time in the tower stewing in a fug of smugly callous Tzimisce amorality. I find I much prefer the company of Angyalka and Devald.

Nevertheless, as agreed, I revived Erzebet from her torpor, and to my immense surprise – and relief – she not only rejected her father’s overtures of reconciliation, but declared that she wished to meet Lucien in the hope that he will agree to become her mentor. Perhaps she saw something in Bernhard that we all missed, something that has inspired her to perhaps turn away from the path of savagery? If so, it would bring a crumb of sorely needed hope to this whole wretched affair.

Alas, there seems no possibility of her father changing his tune. He will remain ensconced in his tower, an all-seeing parasite, leeching off his family and people. For now he seems to retain a shred of twisted devotion to his children and a distorted sense of loyalty to his people. But what will happen as the years roll on, as his mortal children die, as the decades turn to centuries, and as an endless procession of his descendants live and die, generation after generation, beneath his ageless gaze?

Why, it’s clear. Increasingly their mewling, ephemeral, animal lives will seem to him pointless and inconsequential, and as he grows in personal and political power his treatment of them will become increasingly callous and cruel. Given his reprehensible conduct after only fifty years of unlife, can there be any doubt that his great-great-great-great-grandchildren will, like everyone else, cower in fear of the ancient monster that lurks in the tower demanding their blood and offering nothing in return but death and despair?

As I said earlier, Durga my friend, we’re a curse on the world. You’re more capable than I – can’t you find a way to wipe us all out?

Take care, my friend.

Maude

P.S. When will we travel together again? I find myself in need of your guidance and perspective. Could you tell?

Session Forty-Five

The Concord of Ashes Haligaunt